Biomolecular archaeology of ancient tuberculosis in Britain and Europe

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Archaeology


Tuberculosis (TB) is a reemerging infection that was also common in the past in Britain. Poverty, drug resistance, the HIV, and migration are key factors in its occurrence today. The disease can be caused by any one of five related bacteria known as the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex. In Britain the two most likely candidates are Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium bovis. M. bovis can infect many different animals, including cows, and humans were often infected by drinking milk, which is why it is pasteurised in Britain. Today, most TB infections occur in the lungs, because it is transmitted via coughing, but other parts of the body can also be infected, especially if the disease is caught by eating or drinking infected foods. If left untreated the infection can cause damage to different bones in the body, most commonly the spine, ribs, hips and knees. Archaeologists have used this information to study TB in the past, but visual examination of skeletons does not reveal which bacterium has caused the infection, nor which strain of either species is present. We would like to be able identify species and strains because this would enable us to trace the origin of TB in Britain. We think TB came to Britain from the Mediterranean region but to confirm this idea we would have to compare the particular strain present in early British skeletons with that in bones from southern Europe. Similarly, we believe that there were changes in the frequencies of different strains of Mycobacterium over time, and these changes were possibly influenced by factors such as immigration, changes in population density, and changes in the environment. There are also interesting questions about the evolution of TB in the New World after contact with Europeans. All of these questions could be addressed if we could identify the particular strains of Mycobacterium in skeletons from different places and different time periods. Until recently, this was impossible, but now there are techniques for studying the small amounts of 'ancient' DNA that are preserved in some archaeological skeletons. We will therefore extract ancient DNA from a variety of skeletons that show the bone changes associated with TB, and use DNA sequencing to determine which Mycobacterium strain is present in each case. The proposed project will carry out this work with skeletons from Britain and Europe. Our Project Partners in Arizona State University are doing similar work with bones from North America, and by comparing our two sets of results we will be able to study the impact that Contact had on TB in the New World.


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Title Skeleton Science 1 
Description An exhibition that focused on what we can learn from the skeleton, included the study of tuberculosis; Fulling Mill Museum, Durham University, Durham 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact Feedback; school visits; led to Durham University seed corn funding for creation of school teaching resource 
Title Skeleton Science 3 
Description An exhibition that focused on what we can learn from the skeleton, included the study of tuberculosis - Bede's World, Tyne and Wear 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Feedback 
Title Skeleton Science 4 
Description An exhibition that focused on what we can learn from the skeleton, included the study of tuberculosis - Bedale Museum, North Yorkshire; weekend in June 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Feedback 
Description That ancient pathogen DNA research is challenging and that methods advance rapidly
That looking at the DNA of pathogens, such as the bacteria which causes tuberculosis, can tell us much more than we could have known by not using this advanced analytical method
That we can now look at the evolution of the bacteria to see whether strains have changed through time
That it is important to curate archaeological skeleotns for future research - if that had not happened, our research would not have been possible
Exploitation Route Perhaps if health practitioners used pathogen aDNA analysis research to see the long view of the evolution of pathogens, this might help to explain antibiotic resistance today. The last 10,000 years, at least, have made humans what they are today.
Sectors Education,Environment,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Archaeology for the older generation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact Spent 2 months in a care home working with carers and residnets. Focus was to introduce archaeology to the older generation, including the study of health and well-being through archaeological skeletons. Involved short talks, hands on sessions, visits to museums and archaeological sites, processing finds.
Funded by Durham University Seedcorn funding
Led to creation of a Skeleton Science: Archaeology for the older generation resource, and development of the Skeleton Science website to accommodate this part of the project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description U3A group, Leyburn 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk on the study of archaeological human remains and evidence for disease, including tuberculosis
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017